In short a diagnosed, incurable, mental condition characterised by communication difficulties, inabilities to form relationships and grasp abstract concepts.
So what does this really mean?
For me, as a parent of a 9 year old girl diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, it means getting a grip on how my Fern sees the world and how it differs from how everyone else sees it.
When we're children we develop language skills so we can engage with others and almost by instinct we learn how to read facial expressions and then the light bulb moment - we learn that these are connected. So we learn the right words to say, in the right order, and not just that, we learn that language can be manipulated to our advantage, we can lie, creep, threaten with the right words and we can use our faces to reinforce the message. We can even hide our expressions and turn on the waterworks for effect.
For a child with autism learning language is difficult, grasping the meaning, trying to put it in order and coupled with this, trying to translate what a face is expressing. It's like trying to crack the da vinci code. Is that person angry? What's a lie? Autistic children lack the social skills to fully lie and surprisingly this can cause problems. I spent ages training Fern not to say Hello you're old, fat, ugly etc - to her it was just a factual statement. She didn't understand about feelings. We've made great progress with this and she now compliments people she meets, I like your hair, dress etc.
She takes language literally, I used to have to think about saying things like it's raining cats and dogs, because she expected to see cats and dogs falling from the sky. Everything is literal to her, a broken heart is just that..a broken heart. She cannot always tell my facial expressions and will ask me if I'm angry or sad. But she is developing a great sense of humour, like the time she proudly announced , look I've made a naked vampire. I fell about laughing and she started to work it out and realise why I laughed and now it is our little joke.
We process language and facial recognition at lightening speed, so fast we don't know we're doing it. For an autistic child it's like processing quantum physics, slow, laborious, bewildering and complex. And this is why most people think autistic children are stupid and rude.
Processing all this information is physically and mentally draining, so to cope, they won't always look you in the eye when talking, to them it's one less piece of information to process and they don't listen. I've lost count of how many times I've had to tell people she's not deaf, just overwhelmed, too much information to process, She has to shut something off to cope.
This is just a fraction of insight into her world.